Caring Confectionery #4: Market Insights with Gateaux de Voyage

Read an exciting interview with Sho Yoshida, brand manager of Las Olas, a plant-based brand developed by Gateaux de Voyage

Hello Market Shakers, 

After an overview of trends in Japan and worldwide, of what’s in store and what consumers think, we’re excited to share with you an interview with Sho Yoshida, brand manager of Las Olas at Gateaux de Voyage

We briefly talked about Gateaux de voyage with Gizem Sakamaki in Focus On Veganism in Japan and our first issue of Caring Confectionery. Time now to discover in more detail their adventure in the plant-based confectionery sector. 

Gateaux de Voyage is a confectionery manufacturer specialized in souvenir sweets and treats, founded in 2017. Based in Yokohama, the company now counts over 300 employees. For the past four years, they’ve worked on developing healthy, ‘good for everyone’ treats.

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In the 2010s, plant-based diet trends emerged in Europe, while Japan was lagging. 

Before joining Gateaux de Voyage in 2016, Yoshida worked in the chocolate industry in Spain. There, he witnessed firsthand the spread of plant-based diets. The trends emerged in the early 2010s and advanced in European countries at different rates. In Spain, people did not embrace veganism right away but focused on eating more green and cutting back on animal products. 

I discovered veganism through my friends and acquaintances. I was stricken by how, while not being strictly vegan, they would enjoy having vegan meals. I wouldn’t say they eat vegan food out of fashion, but more that they adopted a flexible lifestyle.

This ‘veg curiosity’ boosted the Spanish foodservice industry. Happy Cowreported a 94% increase in vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Spain from 2011 to 2014” (Compassionate consumption, 2018). Yoshida noticed the vegan trend penetrated the foodservice industry, too.

In Japan, an Indian restaurant looks exotic and will mimic the experience of a trip to India. But In Barcelona, it felt like a very natural choice for the very same restaurant category to advertise themselves as plant-based and to offer vegan curries.” Today, veganism is thriving in European countries. 

In Japan, the enthusiasm for veganism is not there yet. The plant-based market is growing at a much slower rate, though it went through an impressive acceleration in 2020, with health and wellness driving the local demand. The key driver, until 2020, has been the tourism industry trying to align itself with global consumer choices.

Gateaux de Voyage ventured into the plant-based confectionery sector with the 2020 Olympic Games in mind.

In 2013, Tokyo won its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. When Yoshida came back to Japan, the food industry was entirely focused on the event.

I started thinking that in the confectionery industry, too, exploring vegan trends could be an interesting development.

Japan has experienced an explosive growth of inbound tourism in the 2010s. With the Olympics on the horizon, the country was expecting to welcome over 40 million visitors. 

However, the tourism boom revealed that Japan isn’t necessarily a friendly destination for travelers with dietary restrictions, whether for health (allergies, intolerance) or ethical reasons.

I feel the gap between foreigners' perception of Japanese cuisine and the reality is interesting. International travelers, particularly from Europe, have this misguided perception that Japan is somewhat vegan.

But the reality is that Japan isn’t very suitable for vegans. Our condiments contain animal ingredients. Choices are limited even in convenience stores and supermarkets. The Japanese language is also a barrier to understanding what they eat.

I wanted to work toward expanding the range of choice. In the past four years [2016-2020], I helped raise awareness and working on new product research and development.

In 2017, French organic supermarket chain Bio c’Bon opened its first store in Japan. The Japan branch, formed as a joint venture with major retailer Aeon, is thriving and now counts 26 stores. The development of the organic chain leads Yoshida to think about product quality and health on top of plant-based ingredients. 

I asked our providers for detailed information about our ingredients. I received samples and got shocked to find them accompanied with health and usage caution related to cancer risks. I don’t want to offer confectionery to my loved ones if they’re unhealthy!

Yoshida reoriented Gateaux de Voyage’s research and development to include organic ingredients. Conscious of the advances in the American and European markets, he traveled to taste many new innovative products over the years. 

In the United States and Europe, consumers can already find a lot of vegan products. But my goal is to use Japanese technology so we can develop our know-how. I want to make vegan products unique to Japan, that Japanese consumers would accept.

Then in 2019, the JR East company called out for confectionery manufacturers to team up and develop a series of vegan products that could cater to the needs of tourists coming for the Olympic Games in 2020. The occasion was perfect to launch a plant-based confectionery line-up. 

We answered the call and tied up with them to develop our first plant-based brand, Las Olas. Our primary consumer target was international travelers. We released our product in February 2020.

Unfortunately, the pandemic stood in the way of a successful launch 

Initially, the JR East planed a strong promotion campaign, but the novel coronavirus disrupted our project and drained all media and journalists’ attention. From the start, our promotion got nipped in the bud, and our sales didn’t grow.

Japan abruptly closed its borders to international travelers in March 2020, and to this date [June 2021], entering Japan is strictly limited to national citizens and residents. Gateaux de Voyage could only rely on domestic tourism and consumers.

We received warm feedback from Japanese consumers with food allergies in particular, to eggs, as well as from health-conscious people. We shifted our promotion to emphasize our products are allergen-free.

Food allergies in Japan are a complex social issue. While recent statistics indicate an increase in food allergies, particularly to dairy and egg products, many still associate allergies (or food intolerance for that matter) with being fussy with one’s food. As Emma E. Book explains in Navigating Food Allergies in Japan (2020), “being able to eat anything is a mark of a cooperative person and expressing strong dislikes and likes has typically been considered a sign of a problematic or difficult person.” Until very recently, few confectionery manufacturers addressed food allergy issues.

Our customers reached out to tell us how they had never purchase sweets at a cake shop or celebrated their birthday with a cake until now. As a confectionery manufacturer, this was the first time we received such grateful feedback from our customers.

Their consumers also voiced that they’d like Gateaux de Voyage to develop more products similar to Las Olas.

More than plant-based, a “good-for-you” confectionery that everyone can enjoy

When researching products available on the Japanese market, we noticed that many products advertised they’re “allergen-free” or “dairy-free,” but close to none underlined they’re plant-based (or effectively vegan) products. An indication that capturing mainstream consumers with no food allergies with a plant-based or vegan label isn’t easy. For Yoshida, these labels are imperfect in translating the products he wishes to bring to the market. 

Both “vegan” or “plant-based” labels tell consumers to make a choice. Veganism implies caring about animal welfare, having compassion beyond food and expands to choices you make with your clothes. On the other hand, plant-based translates a desire to reduce our consumption of animal products. Eating more plant-based is also about health and diet concerns. Both vegan and plant-based are close concepts, while the level of commitment isn’t the same.

Like with Spanish consumers, a wide range of consumers in Japan are in-between ‘flexitarian.’ But contrary to European trends, they’re not particularly interested in making food choices based on ethical or environmental issues. Health is the key driver in Japan. 

Our consumer-based is wide, from vegans to flexitarians, to people with religious dietary restrictions or food allergies. Finally, we’ve also got mainstream consumers who will perceive “no egg, no milk, no butter” labeling negatively and won’t trust our products are good.

Proud of their brand slogan —Peace Sweet—Gateaux de Voyage aims to offer a natural choice to consumers, one that non-vegan people would also enjoy. 

I don’t want labels to bring a division, but to offer a product that everyone can enjoy together, vegan, Muslims, people with allergies. I believe in developing a ‘good-for-you’ brand that’s not just about being plant-based. My vision is of a store where consumers with and without dietary restrictions can stand side by side and enjoy eating our sweets with pleasure.

Sho Yoshida cares not to promote or impose a specific way of providing food but to increase the choice.

It sounds cheesy, but as a sweet manufacturer, I wish to bring sweets that everyone, regardless of their diet, can enjoy together.

Despite a missed start, Las Olas is here to stay and thrive

Sho Yoshida is actively keeping the brand Las Olas going. Since the beginning of the year [2021], inquiries keep on coming to Gateaux de Voyage. The recognition of vegan and plant-based is clearly on the rise.

I feel the plant-based trend spread worldwide last year. In Japan, Mos Burger released its plant-based burger, Doutor cafe chain its plant-based sandwich, and this year, it's coffee chain Tully's turn. The ramen chain Ippudo also temporarily released vegan ramen. The market saw a lot of new products coming out. Celebrities are talking openly about being vegan. The boom is gradually coming to Japan, and I’m actively raising awareness in the confectionery industry.

Gateaux de Voyage has decided to stay on track with its plant-based brand following the JR East initiative.

We have spent a considerable amount of time and effort in research and development for this new line-up. We have developed our technology and know-how through the years, and it would be a waste to stop everything now. Companies need to truly want to try and experiment rather than jump on trends. Not all the company can go on when the sales aren't good.

Las Olas wasn’t a huge success compared to Gateaux de Voyage’s regular products. But the company, and Sho Yoshida, look at the long-term picture. They’re working toward developing more products that cater to people with allergies. The country will eventually open up to inbound tourism, and Las Olas will be ready. 

Today, I'm excited about developing more products and trying them on the market. Thinking about the future, I think the industry can only move toward more organic, vegan, and free-from products.

The challenge right now is to find the bridge to capture Japanese consumers’ attention.

Insisting on vegan marketing to cater to international visitors might deflect domestic tourists’ interest. I think health and the impact of what you eat on your body is a key driver. We need to put health at the heart of our products while presenting something delicious. Otherwise, they won’t buy it.

If given the opportunity, Gateaux de Voyage wouldn’t mind exporting their products.

The Japanese confectionery company has not moved toward international markets yet but would be keen on exporting Las Olas.

Throughout our research and development journey, I have tasted many foreign vegan sweets. I think our products are as delicious and have a shot at success abroad.

While exporting products with animal ingredients is challenging, plant-based products offer an easier path to foreign markets.

If we were to give a try to export, I believe we’d do well in Singapore and Taiwan. Successfully landing on mature markets like the United Kingdom and Germany would be incredible.

As for foreign players trying to make their way to Japan, Sho Yoshida views them as potential partners. A view shared by Yuya Makino, Director of Public Relations and Marketing at Next Meats, Japan’s latest plant-based meat start-up. Currently, Japanese food manufacturers are holding many discussions on plant-based and vegan trends through private vegan incorporation (ビーガンという取り組み).

I do not view newcomers as a competition. On the contrary, we need to expand this market through the development of partnerships. We can learn from each other and exchange different technologies and know-how. We're far from having reached complete expertise, but that's what I strive for.

That’s all, folks!

Next week, we sit down with Yvonne Hauf, Director Business Unit International, and Marc Leonhardt, Business Development Manager at Katjes, vegan licorice and fruit gum confectionery company based in Germany. 

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Made with ❤️ by GourmetPro - Food & Beverage experts in Japan. Reach out for questions and comments!

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